Program to End Homelessness Among Veterans Reaches a Milestone in Arizona
PHOENIX — Their descent into homelessness began almost as soon as they had closed a dignified chapter in their lives: their military service.
Dexter Mackenstadt, 63, a sailor who spent the Vietnam War tracking submarines along the East Coast, slipped into alcoholism. Robert Stone, 56, who spent three years stationed at naval bases in California, fell to that, too, and to a failing heart. John Hankins, 52, who repaired intercontinental ballistic missiles at an Air Force base in Wyoming, spent years as a drifter, living in a methamphetamine lab in the Arizona desert.
Today they are neighbors and participants in a program that White House officials have said has led Phoenix to become the first community in the country to end homelessness among veterans with long or recurrent histories of living on the streets.
In 2011, by a city count, there were 222 chronically homeless veterans here, a vulnerable, hard-to-reach population of mostly middle-age men, virtually all battling some type of physical or mental ailment along with substance abuse. Federal and city officials acknowledged that was not an exact number, but it is widely regarded as the best measure of the veteran population.
Last month, the last 41 members of that group were placed in temporary housing. Shane Groen, a director at the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, one of the city’s partners in the program, said the goal was to have them all in permanent housing by Feb. 14.
Mr. Stone said, “I’m coming up on nine months sober, and a big part of it is because I have a roof over my head.” He lived on the streets off and on for 15 years until he moved into an apartment here in March.
This month, Salt Lake City placed the last of its chronically homeless veterans in housing, its mayor, Ralph Becker, announced.
These milestones are the first significant achievements by individual communities in the federal government’s plan to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, part of its ambitious and complex push to eliminate homelessness over all by 2020. Although officials have conceded that the plan is behind schedule, they point to the significant decline in the number of homeless veterans — to roughly 58,000, or 9 percent of the homeless population, last January from 76,000, or 12 percent of the nation’s homeless, in 2010 — as a hopeful sign, given that it happened in spite of difficult economic times. (The number of homeless people over all fell by 5 percent during the same period.)
“We do think we can get to the point where we can say there are no more homeless veterans in the country,” Laura Zeilinger, deputy director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness, said in an interview. “And if we do this for veterans, it’s something that as a nation, if we set our mind to, we can achieve for other populations as well.”
Arizona has more homeless veterans than most other states — roughly one in five homeless adults, according to statistics from the state’s Department of Veterans’ Services. In an interview, Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix and a longtime proponent of increasing investment and partnerships on homeless outreach, characterized the recent achievement as “important because we’re helping people in need, but also important because it helps our economy.”
According to local and national surveys, it is more expensive to cover the costs of emergency room visits or nights in jail for homeless people than it is to give them homes. A 2009 analysis commissioned by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which handles the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, found that the monthly cost of housing and supportive services for one person was $605, while the public costs of a person living on the streets were roughly $2,900 a month.
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Across the country, the strategy is centered on an approach called Housing First, through which a home is not treated as a reward for good behavior. As Ms. Zeilinger put it, it is instead “the platform of stability that lets previously homeless people work on the other issues they’re facing,” like mental illness and addiction, which are particularly common among the chronically homeless. The term is defined as those who have continuously lived on the streets for a year or have done so at least four times over three years.
Some advocates say the concept works more easily in places like Phoenix, where there is room to build. Victory Place, the 104-apartment complex where Mr. Mackenstadt and Mr. Hankins live, opened last year on the city’s south side. (An additional 96 units are under construction on the same campus.) Meanwhile, in cities like Los Angeles, building is expensive and competition is stiff for existing affordable-housing units, which are already scarce, said Steve Peck, president and chief executive of U.S. Vets, the nation’s largest nonprofit service provider for veterans.
There is also the challenge of sustaining the investment, given the steady stream of soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been ending up on the streets.
“The question,” said Mr. Peck, who served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, “is how we create enough housing units to house those who are homeless and where we find the money to provide all the services that are essential to keep them in those units.”
Through a joint program that is the backbone of the federal effort, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs have given $913 million since 2010 in vouchers, as well as clinical and social services, to chronically homeless veterans in or near the communities where they live. (The veterans contribute 30 percent of their gross income toward housing.)
In cities like Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, private donors and religious groups have helped pay for the types of expenses not covered by the vouchers, like furniture and security deposits. Here the United Way is funding 14 workers known as navigators, who have been deployed to walk the veterans through the confusing process of applying for benefits and housing. One of them, James Roberson, 57, who served in the Navy in the Persian Gulf, said the job also involved more mundane tasks, like making sure the veterans had food at home, that they were clean and that their apartments were in order.
Patience is crucial, he said. “You can’t force things on people who have been on the streets so long,” he said. “They won’t take it.”
While the retention rate for homeless veterans placed in permanent housing stood at 85 percent nationally after one year, a survey by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness put it at 94 percent in Phoenix, a success attributed largely to the navigator program.
Mr. Hankins, the former airman, was homeless for six years when a Veterans Affairs social worker stationed at the agency where he had gone to recharge his food stamps card pulled him aside and offered to help. He is one of eight clients of Mr. Roberson’s at Victory Place.
“If I had to do this on my own,” Mr. Hankins said one recent morning as he strolled in Victory Place, “I’d never have made it here.”